The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Watermarks & hidden collections

Hidden collections—that is, collections that are undescribed or underdescribed—are exceedingly common in libraries and archives. Until recently, the manuscript and printed paper that make up the E. Williams watermark collection, including papers of the Hale family of King’s Walden and other papers was an example of a hidden collection. In contrast with completely undescribed collections, however, a minimal description of one element of the materials did exist: in this case, a handlist provided by the bookseller describing watermark features of the paper. The collection contains an impressive range of watermarks, everything from the common pot watermarks to unicorns to elaborate armorials.

Watermark (backlit) of Dragon/cockatrice/basilisk over seal of Basel; HD and star pendant.

Very little is known of the bookseller E. Williams, from whom Henry Folger purchased printed books and manuscripts from 1919 to 1929. However, his letters to Folger as he was forming what would eventually become known as the E. Williams watermark collection indicate a man passionately engaged in disproving the Baconian theory of Shakespeare authorship through watermark evidence. E. Williams first proposed the idea of a collection of “purely English watermarks of the Elizabethan period” to Henry Folger on January 4, 1924.  Williams’s goal was to collect dated legal documents covering “the whole Shakespearian period” (1550-1650), providing examples of the earliest and latest date of each watermark. His interest in the project was piqued by claims by Baconians that “numerous small variations in the English water marks have a cypher meaning & that Bacon actually had a private paper mill of his own working for this set purpose.”

Autograph letter from E. Williams to Henry Folger, 1924 January 4 (detail)

E. Williams sent four shipments of watermarks to Folger between February 1924 and June 1927. Each shipment was accompanied by a list describing the watermarks represented:

E. Williams handlist for May 1924 (cs1262.2)

While some of the descriptors Williams used are idiosyncratic, his handlists have offered access to the watermarks, with the result that this collection has invited watermark study over the years. The noted bibliographer and watermark specialist Allan H. Stevenson reviewed the collection and added his notes to some of the folders in the 1950s, and, starting in the 1970s, Thomas Gravell reproduced many of the watermarks using Dylux, a photosensitive paper. These images are now part of the Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive (to locate this set of images, conduct a shelfmark search under “Artifact fields” using the shelfmark “WM Coll.”).

E. Williams’s handlists, however, have a significant limitation: they do not account for the fact that comparatively few of his paper specimens are of blank sheets. Almost all were vehicles for manuscript or printed text.

In 2001, Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts, noticed that a significant number of the manuscripts relate to the legal, financial, and manorial affairs of the Hale family of King’s Walden, Hertfordshire. Richard Hale, a wealthy London merchant, purchased the manor of King’s Walden in 1575, and he and his descendants continued to acquire additional property through the 16th and 17th centuries, resulting in many of the documents found in this collection. Some of the financial documents reference the Hale family’s business transactions, such as this account that records receipts from the East India Company and the Merchant Adventurers, among others.

Accounts of William? Hale, 1624/1625 February-1625 June
Accounts of William? Hale, 1624/1625 February-1625 June (detail)

As for the printed material, the collection includes not only individual leaves removed from books, but also a number of English Civil War era pamphlets and broadsides in their entirety. Some of these are not otherwise in the Folger collection, such as this parliamentary order:

England and Wales. Parliament. Die Jovis, 10. Decembr. 1646. An order of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, concerning all officers and soldiers ...

Despite these discoveries, it was another 10 years before Folger staff found time to process and describe the collection. The goal was to shed light on the manuscript content of this collection, but I also did not want to destroy the order of the collection as a resource for watermark study, as E. Williams had originally envisioned it. I settled on an unconventional approach: to maintain the physical arrangement, following the handlists supplied by E. Williams when assigning shelfmarks, while imposing an intellectual arrangement that grouped similar materials in a finding aid.

When I started this project, I was uncertain what common threads would emerge. Indeed, it was only in the process of organizing item-level descriptions into series according to document type (e.g. Manorial documents, Legal documents, Financial documents) and then listing these items chronologically that I noticed how similar the descriptions of several fragmentary manuscripts were. I re-examined these items and in several cases discovered continuity in the text from one leaf to another as well as evidence of the same manuscript hand. Note, for example, the leaves 5 and 6 from this final concord, originally numbered L.f.1050 and L.f.815, respectively:

Final concord of messuages in Stevenage, Walkern and Aston in Hertfordshire, November 26, 1651, and proclamations of the fine : copy, after 1652

It is of course possible that the same individual made multiple copies of the same document, but now compare these same two sheets, this time looking at the verso of each:

verso sides

The stains and creases on the paper line up, making it clear that these leaves had a common origin and had most probably been stored together until E. Williams’s intervention.

matching creases!

It seemed appropriate to reunite these leaves under a single shelfmark, in spite of earlier commitments to respect Williams’s handlist order. The finding aid does, however, include notes placing individual leaves in the context of E. Williams’s arrangement process.

E. Williams’s pillaging of printed books and manuscripts for watermark specimens would be considered irresponsible by modern standards, but he was of the opinion that these manuscripts were valueless, being chiefly copies of legal documents. What Williams didn’t anticipate was later interest in ephemeral evidence of daily life and record keeping in the early modern period. At the end of the day, it is hard to predict future use of archival materials, and for this reason, even the most well-intentioned booksellers, archivists, and manuscript librarians can damage or obscure the historical record in the process of selection, arrangement, and description.

The goal of the finding aid to the E. Williams watermark collection is to draw attention to the significant holdings regarding a merchant class family while still providing access to the watermarks in each item-level description. While the printed items will eventually receive full book cataloging in Hamnet, the finding aid also provides some basic access to the book fragments, pamphlets, and broadsides in the interim. We look forward to reader use of the finding aid, and to suggestions for corrections and improvements based on additional discoveries.


  • Fascinating article. I was wondering in regards to watermarks more generally, are you aware of any kind of watermark catalog accessible online with images and searchable information for more well known watermarks? I know it is sort of a long shot to ask, but it seems like that kind of thing would be very useful.

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